It can be all too easy to stick to your culinary comfort zone in Shanghai, be it KFC or gōngbǎo jīdīng. As a challenge to break these habits and avoid the rut, every few weeks Shanghaiist will explore one of the more intriguing options out of China’s endless array of curious cookery. Although bizarre to most Western palates, these oft-avoided edibles usually boast unique medicinal properties, nutritional benefits, and intriguing culinary histories. We’ll explore for you where they came from and where you can sample these rare eats for yourselves.
LIVE DRUNKEN SHRIMP (呛虾, qiàng xiā)
Regions of use: China (all over), Southeast Asia
Tasted at: Yi Sheng Yue Wei (熠盛粤味) // 132 Yongkang Lu,
near Xiangyang Lu (永康路132号, 近襄阳路) // Closest metro stop: Hengshan Road (衡山路) Line 1
Apparently, many of you thought we’d wussed out by doing hair vegetable for January’s Off the Beaten Palate. How could we possible run a food that’s non-venomous, smells normal, and doesn’t writhe when you bite in, right? Why not do one on arugula too? Well, our fangs are back in, and hopefully they have extra grip as we wrap our jaws around the squirming, jumping delicacy known as live drunken shrimp.
Live drunken shrimp unshelled
“Dancing shrimp” in Japan
Many use the terms “live shrimp” and “drunken shrimp,” interchangeably, but these words can denote entirely different dishes. Live shrimp aren’t always drunken and drunken shrimp aren’t always live. Japanese “dancing shrimp,” odori ebi, are live prawns that are beheaded and served still wriggling, no boozing involved, while drunken shrimp can be intoxicated and then boiled or boiled and then marinaded in alcohol, or marinaded in alcohol and then served raw but dead.
The version we’re referring to, qiang xia, entails tiny, clawed river shrimp served both drunk and live. They’re first soaked in baijiu or another spirit until drunken, which takes less than a minute as they’re literally lightweights. The liquor is then dumped out, and like anyone after pounding a ton of baijiu, the shrimp become thirsty. Instead of giving them water you marinate them in a sauce of your choice (a “chaser”) which the parched critters imbibe, absorbing the flavor. Sauces vary from place to place – Sichuanese use a spicier sauce, Shanghaiers use a range of sweet, sour, and salty dressings. The shrimp then come snapping and twitching in a glass goblet with a lid to prevent them springing into your lap.
Beyond the pleasure of watching a mini-Cirque du Soleil on the dinner table, eating live drunken shrimp is said to give you spring in your own shrimp when the moment’s right. I know, what isn’t an aphrodisiac?
Shanghai Ren Jia is the favorite destination for live drunken shrimp, but we decided to hit up the less-traversed Yi Sheng Yue Wei. Cozy, unassuming, and specializing in down-home Cantonese dishes like clay pot water spinach, it seemed like the last place that’d carry this brand of exotica.
And they hide their live shrimp well. I repeatedly asked the fuwuyuan, for qiang xia, which she conveniently misinterpreted as chao xia, stir fried shrimp. Either she feared I was a PETA agent or couldn’t fathom that some curly-haired, back-packed, laowai goof would order live drunken shrimp. Miming a shrimp jumping with my fingers only made her and nearby patrons crack up. It did, however, lighten the mood, and after explaining that I was half-Chinese and that my job involved trying interesting foods, an older patron laughingly told the waitress something along the lines of “give the laowai the shrimp, what’s the worst that can happen?” Lung fluke sprang to mind.
My shrimp dish consisted of 20-30 tiny beige shrimp in a goblet of rice wine, vinegar, ginger, onions, cilantro and other dressings (60RMB). Some had completely blacked out, some twitched, and others jumped right out of the bowl. I felt bad for the young couple next to me because every few minutes, their intimate conversation would be interrupted by a shrimp plopping on my tabletop and flicking its tail.
Other than this, they didn’t resist too much. One threw a sluggish haymaker that grazed my lip, upon which I immediately snapped it up. The sweet marinade drowned most of the raw flavor, which evoked shrimp sashimi, and the shells presented less of an obstacle than rice paper. It wasn’t until I gobbled all 30 or so of them that someone informed me I wasn’t supposed to eat the heads. The possibility of being featured in a Monsters Inside Me special on paragonimiasis played inside my head.
Is it ethical?
Let’s put it this way: eating it live isn’t the issue provided it’s quick, so if you’ve consumed raw oysters, delete that comment section tirade now. The suffering in and of itself during preparation and serving isn’t really the issue either. Animals with far more developed central nervous systems suffer way more and for a lot longer in feedlots without any baijiu to drown their sorrows. The issue lies in that drunken shrimp suffer for your amusement while cows suffer to end up as totally necessary, non-amusement-related Luther Burgers (okay bad example). All in all, while there are purported medicinal reasons to eat live drunken shrimp, if you’re an expat you’re eating them for sport. So if you’re fine with that, go for it.
Live drunken shrimp are sweet, refreshing, warm-weather treats and dinner and a show in one. But bring a Chinese friend to help you order if you’re an expat/foreigner, even if you’re Chinese is passable. I barely persuaded them to serve me the dish as a half-Chinese guy with decent Mandarin skills.
Last time on Off the Beaten Palate: Hair vegetable
See a complete list of our Off the Beaten Palate series here.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].